How Mickey Mouse dominated Republican debate

In-fighting wins out as the presidential race accelerates.

I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing 'Mickey Mouse games'.

So said Newt Gingrich last night after FOX News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked the man whose presidential campaign is more than one million dollars in debt whether, quite honestly, he might agree that his attempt to win political election had been a "mess so far".

Mickey Mouse games were indeed the name of the game in Ames, Iowa on Thursday evening, when eight candidates came head to head in round two of the Republican presidential race, all desperate to prove themselves worthy of taking on Obama in next year's presidential elections.

The two-hour debate cranked up the pace several notches after the much more bland affair two months ago, which saw only five of the candidates bother even to turn up. Last time, notable absences included Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michelle Bachman, generally considered to be the more "heavyweight" candidates.

While May's debate saw candidates on their best behaviour, uniting against Obama in a false show of solidarity, Thursday night saw the candidates turn on their fellow Republicans to pull one another's policies apart in a bout of in-fighting that left no clear winner by the end of it all.

The repeated bickering between former governor Tim Pawlenty and congresswoman Michele Bachmann stood out. The two Minnesota candidates exchanged curt criticisms, with Pawlenty gesturing at Bachmann as he accused her record of accomplishment and results of being "non-existent".

Not one to mince his words, he moved on to address her directly with "please stop, because you're killing us". Bachmann held her own, accusing her challenger of taking a stance more in line with Obama than a conservative Republican, a big put down from the Tea Party champion.

Foreign policy took its place in the spotlight for a time. Congressman Ron Paul received strong support after putting forward his pragmatic anti-war position, pointing out that the US can no longer afford to fund wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "the threat from war in Iran is overstated", he said with gusto. Bachmann was having none of it.

The next stage in this ongoing battle will be Saturday's Ames straw poll, the most prominent of the Iowa straw polls running up to the presidential candidacy elections and a good early indicator of voter enthusiasm. Although non-binding, the poll gives a good indication of which candidates are faring particularly badly, in turn affecting their likelihood of winning Iowa in January and so potentially discounting them from the rest of the race.

The fact that some candidates are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to win over tomorrow's voters indicates just how important they think this poll is. With Texan Governor Rick Perry -- the "invisible presence" at the GOP debate last night -- expected to join the campaign this weekend, Mitt Romney's front-running status looks precarious.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times